GOP not sold on Lieberman e-gov bill

Sen. Joe Lieberman's hope for broad bipartisan support of his sweeping blueprint for e-government got a jolt from Senate Republicans during the first hearing on the legislation last week.

Lieberman (D-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, contends that his E-Government Act of 2001 would harness information technology to make the federal government better deliver services to citizens, improve accountability and cut costs. But some GOP panel members said the bill might also make it easier for criminals to defraud agencies and would increase budgets.

Ranking committee member Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) said at the July 11 hearing that the Education Department, for example, has automated its student loan process so that it is now possible to apply for and receive loans online. But the department has not solved financial management problems that make the loan program highly vulnerable to waste, fraud and abuse, he said.

The loan program "has spawned a cottage industry" of defrauding the government, Thompson said. "Are we making it so criminals can rob the Department of Education more efficiently?"

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said rushing into the electronic world could double the cost of government. The Library of Congress, for example, now must operate both a paper library and an electronic one, he said. Similarly, the Internal Revenue Service is pushing people to file taxes electronically, but must also process tax returns on paper because many people don't like electronic filing. "Are we pushing too fast?" Stevens asked.

Lieberman emphasized that he is willing to work out differences with the administration, and a Republican co-sponsor, Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), declared, "The future of democracy is digital, and I am very enthusiastic about working with Chairman Lieberman to move this bill forward."

The bill calls for e-government to be headed by a federal chief information officer and proposes a new Office of Information Policy.

"A lack of concentrated, high-level leadership" has been a major impediment to developing a smooth-running e-government, Lieberman said. Some agencies have embraced it, offering information, services and even the opportunity to comment on proposed rules online. But others have only a rudimentary online presence, and many offer duplicate or overlapping services.

Lieberman's bill would make the federal CIO a deputy to the director of the Office of Management and Budget. And it would provide the CIO with a $200 million yearly technology fund for innovative, multiagency e-government projects.

But the Bush administration opposes Lieberman's plan, contending that CIO duties should be assigned to OMB's deputy director for management, a position vacant since January. The new position of associate director for information technology and e-government—filled by Mark Forman—would assist the deputy director for management.

Bush officials also say Lieberman's plan would add a layer to the bureaucracy at OMB and increase the burden of filing reports.

The administration proposes a $20 million technology fund for 2002. Sean O'Keefe, OMB deputy director, said that although IT can improve government services and reduce costs, "this administration believes e-government must be integrated with the larger picture of management reform."

Despite Republican apprehensions, other groups showed enthusiasm for the Lieberman bill, including industry representatives and state officials.

Anne Altman, managing director of IBM Corp.'s federal government division, said shifting sales, inquiries and other transactions from paper to the Internet saved the company $377 million last year. Similar cost-cutting could be achieved by agencies, she said, and when applied governmentwide, "the potential for savings is enormous."

State governments, too, are appointing senior-level CIOs, said Aldona Valicenti, president of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers. Most of them report directly to the governor. "It's considered that important," said Valicenti, who is Kentucky's CIO.

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